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U.S. Investigates If Russia Play a Role in Chemical Attack; Syrian Airbase Suffers Extreme Damage in U.S. Strike. Aired 6:30-7a ET

Aired April 8, 2017 - 06:30   ET


[06:30:10] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. I'm Brianna Keilar in Washington for Christi Paul.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Victor Blackwell in New York.

Here's the questions that officials here in the U.S. are trying to answer. Was Russia involved in the chemical attack there in Syria? A U.S. military official tells CNN the Pentagon is examining whether a Russian warplane bombed a hospital five hours after the chemical attack aiming to destroy evidence.

Now that attack Tuesday killed at least 80 people, injured dozens more. Now these are the images of the aftermath that prompted President Trump to act. Russian president, Vladimir Putin, blasted the decision to strike the Assad regime as an act of aggression saying that the move dealt a serious blow to Russian-U.S. relations.

Now this comes after President Putin initially denied a chemical attack even happened in Syria. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley says the U.S. is prepared to do more but hoping it will not have to. And Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal who serves on the Armed Services Committee says Russia used the attack to test the United States.


SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I think there's mounting evidence that they were complicit in one way or another, that they knew about it, Russian did at some level knew about it and they should be held accountable.

Russia is testing us through violation of the IMF treaty involving cruise missiles, other steps that have been taken are ongoing.


KEILAR: The former activist and rebel fighter barely survived what remains the largest chemical attack of the Syrian war, the one back in August of 2013. Now not even four years later he's seen this happen all over again and he says that he was overwhelmed by the U.S. missile strike by the Assad -- on the Assad regime.


KASSEM EID, SURVIVOR, SURVIVED 2013 SYRIAN CHEMICAL: I saw the news. I cried out of joy. I thanked God. I don't know. I was overwhelmed. We've been asking for protection. We've been asking for consequences for more than six years. And today for the first time it happened. For the very first time we see Assad held accountable just for once.


KEILAR: I want to bring in now Mirna Barq. She is the president of the Syrian-American Council.

Mirna, just give us a sense of how Syrians are responding to this and also some of the expectations. We just heard there from that rebel fighter that he was overwhelmed, finally something is being done. But is there a sense that -- you know, it's unclear what is going to continue to be done here?

MIRNA BARQ, PRESIDENT OF THE SYRIAN-AMERICAN COUNCIL: Yes, good morning, ma'am. And Kaseem, I knew Kaseem personally, and when he was in USA we were together advocating in D.C. for a no-fly zone. So I know him well. And I am glad that he's safe now. I was very happy that President Trump did what he did. We were very happy. We were very grateful that finally somebody took -- stood up to this tyrant, Assad.

What President Trump did in two days, Obama couldn't do in six years. You know, that this happened before and Kaseem was the victim of the 2013 attack that happened, the chemical attack, and Obama drew a red line in the sand and nothing happened. And that's why it's getting worse and worse every day because nobody stood up to the tyrant. And we are very grateful on behalf of the Syrian-American community.

We appreciate the leadership that President Trump took in this horrific attack. And as we said, that no child of God should go through this and he's absolutely right. The scenes we've seen on TV with the babies, it's just absolutely heartbreaking.

KEILAR: Mirna, no doubt they are heartbreaking and I think that is something, again, that was -- people were just reminded of that of the horrific nature of this six years of civil war.

I want to bring in Hala Gorani.

Hala, you've seen Mirna's very emotional reaction there. That's obviously something that a lot of Syrians and Syrian-Americans are feeling, just as well as people around the world who are looking at these pictures.

What is the expectation, though, from Syrians as to what the Trump administration is going to do from here rather than this just being an isolated attack on the Syrian regime?

HALA GORANI, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: So I think -- well, first of all, I think 00 I think you're asking me, Brianna.


GORANI: there are two sets of reactions in the region. Because what Syria has become essentially is a proxy war between two main blocs, the Iran-Hezbollah, this is the group here in Lebanon, Russia, against those who are majority Sunni countries like Turkey, like Saudi Arabia and others.

[06:35:10] Those are the rebel groups more associated and supported by those countries. As for the expectations, this is a one-off essentially is the question, or is this opening the door to wider military intervention by the United States? I think that after about a day and a half now of having digested this very significant event the expectations have been lowered. That this is the United states wanting to send a deterrent message to the Assad regime. Stop using chemical weapons. If you do it again we might do something else.

But you have to keep in mind that the vast majority of those who are killed in Syria are killed with conventional weapons. This has been going on for six years. We're talking about 400,000 deaths and a couple of thousand only attributed to chemical attacks. Is the United States going to intervene in those? The expectation is that that is not at all the intention of the Trump administration.

So I don't think that many people here, whether they support the strike or not support the strike, believe this will change, really, the fundamental calculus of this conflict unless there is either more military intervention or a lot more diplomatic pressure placed on the warring parties to try to resolve this politically, Brianna.

KEILAR: Mirna, how do -- what is your reaction to that, the idea that this expectation of more attacks like this is being downgraded a little bit, especially as you said you agree with that statement that a child of god should not be killed in a chemical weapons attack? But Hala points out that so many Syrians have been killed through conventional means and, you know, not to mention barrel bombs as we've seen over and over.

BARQ: Yes, ma'am. Well, we welcome his statement through -- President Trump did make a statement calling on the civilized world to come together and stop this and remove Assad. And what we would like to see actually is ground air force that Assad has, which that's where the massive killing is happening.

The massive killing is happening from the barrel bombs and the chemical weapons. And he mentioned during the campaign that he is for a safe zone. A safe zone is very important for the Syrian -- I mean, the civilians in Syria. Because my father is still there and he lives in the same house that I was born in. And the only reason he's staying because the -- you know, the heavy bombing has not started in Damascus because Damascus is the capital of Assad.

But a lot of people are leaving because they couldn't take the bombing. And at least we can ground his air force so he cannot continue to do this and kill more people because the massive killing was happening from the barrel bombs. And the chemical weapons. Then people will stay there. We will solve two problems. No more refugees because that's also an issue because nobody wants to become a refugee. My father refuses to leave his house. He does not want to become a refugee. He would like to stay where he is. So if we can provide them with a safe zone and enforce it, then no one will leave.

KEILAR: Hala, what do you think? What are the chances of that?

GORANI: Well, there's several issues there that are very important in relation to potentially safe zones. Obviously countries like Turkey have for many years supported the idea of a safe zone. In practice they are very difficult to implement. Why? Because you have an area where you say if you feel unsafe, if you -- we want to create an area where civilians can be protected from air strikes and from attacks. Who is going to police the safe zone from the air. Who would police that safe zone around the perimeter. You need true military intervention for that to work.

Also the issue with safe with zones and my heart breaks for your guest there who talked about her family still in Syria. The situation is very difficult, is that historically safe zones have proven to be an area where a certain number of people, in the case of Syria would be opponents of the regime, gather. They are clustered in one place. What does that make them? That makes them potentially more of a target for people who want to, you know, exact violence on them.

So you have many logistical issues. There are military, there are also humanitarian, you know, concerning safe zones. The other issue as well is, where do you establish these safe zones? Is there infrastructure? Are there hospitals? Are there schools? How are people going to live there day-to-day? So there are countries who support them. They technically and on paper sound like a good idea but there are much harder to put into practice.

KEILAR: Thank you so much for that insight, Hala Gorani, Mirna Barq. Thank you so much for being with us. And we're certainly thinking of your family as we know that they are certainly under threat there. We appreciate it very much -- Victor.

[06:40:05] BARQ: Thank you, ma'am. Thank you very much.

BLACKWELL: All right. Just days after hitting that airfield the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. says that the country is not ruling out more strikes in Syria. So what could be the next move? Our military analyst is up next.


BLACKWELL: New photos show the damage left behind after 59 U.S. missiles hit a Syrian airfield. Take a look at the pictures here. On the left you could see the three aircraft hangars, one is destroyed, two others are damaged, and we've got more pictures here which left the five workshops near the base there, which store ammunition. But for some of these images are raising more questions. Why aren't there more evidence or is there more evidence of damage there after the dozens of missiles hit the base? And what's next here? Another question. What's next for the U.S.?

Let's talk about this now. We have with us Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.

General, good morning to you.

[00:00:00] LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Good morning, Victor. It's good to see you.

BLACKWELL: Likewise. So let's start here with the questions about why there isn't more damage to some of those workshops. Is that a problem for you or is that just point to the precision of this strike?

HERTLING: No, it points more towards to what actually the military wanted to hit, what instructions they were given by the commander-in- chief.

Any time you put a strike package together like this, Victor, you bring options into the person who is going to choose whether it's the military commander or the civilian commander overlooking. You can say here's what we can do, here are the kind of targets that are there, what would you like us to strike? And with the number of missiles that were going that airfield, 59 is the count says, there are certain targets that you can hit.

You know, there's been a lot of discussion about why didn't they crater the runway. And what I'll tell you is because evidently they didn't want to for whatever reason. I wasn't in the decision-making. But if those kind of damages needed to be done, the military effort could have done that. It just must not have been part of the decision process.

BLACKWELL: So they hit what they wanted to hit. They didn't hit what they chose to avoid. Let me get to this investigation now by the Pentagon, questioning whether Russia either knew about this chemical attack or did something to try to cover it up. They are examining this Russian drone that flew over a hospital where some of the victims were being treated hours after the attack and then hours after that drone was there that hospital was bombed.

I want you to listen to what Senator Rubio said about the Russians potentially knowing about this ahead of time.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: The Russians are complicit in these war crimes. If there were at that facility and they have personnel stationed at that airbase, they had to have known that there was Sarin gas being loaded on to those planes.


BLACKWELL: So let's start there. What do you make of the senator's comments?

HERTLING: He is pretty forthright in his conclusions already and that's what the investigation should show. Would the -- did the airplanes actually have Sarin gas loaded as bombs? Don't know yet. There seems to be a lot of indicators that that is what happened when that hospital was hit. There was a chemical substance that affected so many people. But the question as the Russians and the Syrians have said is maybe this is a place where rebels were storing chemical munitions. That seems ludicrous but I think the investigation wants to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was complicity by both the Russians and the Syrians in terms of dropping a bomb.

Don't know that for sure yet. That's what the investigation is going to show. There are certainly indicators that some type of munitions was dropped that caused this damage and it certainly looked based on the drone video that the Russians were supporting this.

BLACKWELL: And what's your degree of suspicion as it relates to this Russian drone that flew over the hospital a few hours after the chemical attack?

HERTLING: Well, I think that's an indicator of what really happened. I personally believe that the Russians were complicit in this and were contributing to it, and attempting to cover it up. They have been involved in multiple war crimes. I said that before on this show, bombing hospitals, arbitrarily bombing civilian casualties.

It is a method of war by both the Syrian regime and the Russian regime to attempt to intimidate the civilian population. That's part of the objectives of this civil war by the Syrians. So, yes, I personally believe it's happened. But again the proof will remain any shadow of a doubt.

BLACKWELL: And very quickly before we go there is now the Admiral Grigorovich that's been moved from the Black Sea, this Russian frigate, now into the Mediterranean. We also know that the Russians are working to beef up Syrian air defenses. Are we on the precipice of something here or is this just a show of force?

HERTLING: This is a show of force, beyond a shadow of doubt. I think the Russians were caught off guard, that the potential for two American war ships to fire that many cruise missiles from off the shore of Lebanon into the land space of Syria. So they want to make sure they are tracking those ships.

And it's not just the Russian destroyer, you can bet there are also Russian and American submarines in that area tracking each other as well. This is a normal procedure. It's a show of force saying hey, you may have surprised us once, you're not going to surprise us again but there's not a whole lot they can do about it if another strike unless they fire on U.S. war ships.

BLACKWELL: Yes. The assets we see are often just a fraction of the assets that are there.

Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, thanks so much.

HERTLING: Always a pleasure, Victor. Thank you.

BLACKWELL: Likewise. Brianna.

KEILAR: Thanks, Victor.

For six years now people living in Syria have been dealing with the horrific violence of war. A look at what life is like for the families since the start of the fighting.



KEILAR: We've talked about escalating U.S.-Russia tensions over Syria but with an estimated 400,000 people killed, the reality of war is something that people there have been dealing with for six years.

I want to show you what life is like for people in Syria, but I do want to warn you, you may be disturbed by some of the images you're about to see.

[06:56:07] If you do want to help the people in Syria you can go to and click on "Impact Your World" -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: Brianna, thanks.

Was Russia complicit in this horrific gas attack? That's what the Pentagon is investigating. Our coverage continues at the top of the hour.